Month: September 2014

Is there a counter-narrative to the traditional student leadership paradigm?

Blog Post Author: Michele Brown Kerrigan

Date: September, 2014

Presently I am engaged in qualitative research examining Students of Color (SOC) and their perceptions of and/or involvement in student leadership activities at a Predominately White Institution (PWI). What drives my research interest is curiosity around the following question: Is there a counter-narrative to the way that student leadership is traditionally defined? Let me provide you with a bit of background info.

Involvement in student leadership activities creates opportunities to access social capital, produces positive effects on personal development, and leads to greater satisfaction with the overall college experience. Simply put—participation in student leadership is viewed as a “good thing.”  However, research indicates that not all students are participating in student leadership activities at equal rates. SOC often perceive the climate within institutions of higher education, in particular PWIs, as particularly hostile and insensitive to their needs. These sentiments often extend to their perceptions of campus organizations and traditional leadership activities. As such, SOC appear less likely to become involved in student leadership opportunities, particularly traditional student leadership opportunities like student government (activities that also happen to be predominately White). Additionally, access to campus leadership opportunities may reflect the larger societal disadvantages and inequities on campus for SOC. In a society where policies systematically benefit privileged individuals, SOC have been historically disadvantaged by society and within higher education, especially at PWIs.

Although SOC face many disadvantages throughout their K-16 educational journey, I’m not trying to imply that SOC do not ever become involved in student leadership activities. Of course they do. However, when SOC do become involved, often their experiences can differ significantly from White students, particularly at PWIs. While the research literature is still somewhat limited (although growing in recent years), here is some of what SOC experience that differs from their White peers:

  • They often participate in minority organizations or “culture clubs.”
  • They lack racially and ethnically diverse role models (particular student leader role models).
  • For SOC who do participate in traditional leadership roles they often experience frequent encounters with microaggressions (such as stereotyping), feelings of unwarranted scrutiny, and a sense of “onlyness”–being one of few student leaders of color on a campus with low racial diversity.

A reasonable conclusion that may be drawn from these differences is that students’ racialized experiences greatly impacts their perceptions, sense of belonging, and ultimately their desire to participate on campus. Furthermore, most literature on student leadership has been examined through traditional measures and the dominant perspective, meaning: male, White, middle-class experiences. This dominant perspective may be considered the “traditional student leadership paradigm.” Clearly, what is then missing from this paradigm are the voices often overlooked or ignored; in the case of my study, I am choosing to focus on the voices of SOC.

For my study in particular, I am also utilizing a Critical Race Theory lens (CRT) as the theoretical framework guiding my study. In a nutshell, CRT acknowledges that racism is systemic and embedded within our society. Ultimately, because of systemic racism, persons of color can remain socially disadvantaged at numerous levels throughout their lifetimes, including within higher education. Due to the very real presence of institutionalized racism, and the inherent challenges SOC face at PWIs, students may be hesitant to participate in their campus community through co-curricular involvement and/or student leadership. In fact, SOC may disengage from the campus community before thoughts of participating in student leadership even occur.

As a result, understanding how SOC perceive and define student leadership, through a CRT lens, will be crucial for both higher education scholars and practitioners in deepening their understanding of students’ racialized experiences, and whether SOC possess the full range of opportunities to garner the developmental outcomes formed through participation in student leadership.

Which leads me back to the initial question I posed. Knowing that student leadership has been traditionally defined through a dominant perspective, and knowing that SOC may disengage from their campus community before involvement occurs, or if involved in student leadership, have experiences that are very different than their White peers, is there something that the higher education community is missing? Is there a counter-narrative to the way that student leadership is defined that might create a more inclusive environment for all? I am curious to hear your thoughts on this issue and welcome your feedback.

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